Noam Chomsky replies to 'The Unbearable Whiteness of Chomsky's Arguments'

The Sudan World Trade Centre comparison


The arguments to which Chomsky is responding are in an essay is circulating on the internet by a Leo Casey entitled The Unbearable Whiteness of Chomsky's Arguments referring to Chomsky's interactions with Hitchens (Chomsky, et. al. Reply to Hitchens). Here is Chomsky's reply to Casey's comments.
Casey's statement merits careful reading, and is a useful contribution. It offers some welcome opportunities to bring out more information about the terrible crimes he is laboring to conceal, and it helps us understand attitudes and techniques of apologists for crimes for which they share responsibility, a matter with important consequences in the richest and most powerful country in the world.

First, let's clear away some of the initial debris that Casey scatters in his effort to obscure the central issues. To begin with, recall the "claim" of mine that initiated these interesting exchanges, for which Casey offers his curious paraphrase. The "claim" consists of a single sentence, in a composite response to inquiries from journalists, observing that the toll of the "horrendous crime" committed on Sept. 11 with "wickedness and awesome cruelty" may be comparable to the consequences of Clinton's bombing of the Sudan in August 1998. That plausible conclusion may be shocking to those who have been well-trained to consider their crimes against the weak to be as normal as the air they breathe. But as in innumerable other cases, the picture looks different at the other end of the guns. Dr. Idris Eltayeb, one of Sudan's handful of pharmacologists and chairman of the board of the pharmaceutical factory destroyed by US missiles, says that the crime "was just as much an act of terrorism as at the twin towers - the only difference is we know who did it. I feel very sad about the loss of life [in New York and Washington], but in terms of numbers, and the relative cost to a poor country, [the bombing in Sudan] was worse" (James Astill, Guardian, Oct. 2, 2001).

Unfortunately, he may be right, even if we do not take into account "the political cost to a country struggling to emerge from totalitarian military dictatorship, ruinous Islamism and long-running civil war" before the missile attack, which "overnight [plunged Khartoum] into the nightmare of impotent extremism it had been trying to escape" (Astill). These political costs may have been even more harmful to Sudan than the destruction of its "fragile medical services," Astill concludes three years after the attack, confirming the reasoned judgment of Financial Times correspondent Mark Huband, which Casey tries hard to evade, and ludicrously attributes to me.

There was also a cost to the US, which I did not discuss, but which happens to be of great significance right at this moment. Let's begin with Casey's rendition, then turn to the facts.

Casey writes: "Chomsky informs us that the bombing of the factory brought to a halt `compromises' that might have ended the decades old 1civil war' between Sudan's `warring sides.' ...Chomsky's suggestion that the Sudanese government had this profound desire to move toward moderation and against terrorism is all the more appalling in its uncannily poor timing," because of the Bush administration's moves to enlist Sudan in its coalition. More accurately, because Washington has finally agreed to accept Sudan's long-standing offers to provide crucial information about the terrorist networks and to turn over bin Laden operatives implicated in terrorist acts against the US.

Let us put aside the childish fabrications and flights of imagination about the Financial Times report that I cited accurately and without relevant omission. More important is the fact that with unerring consistency, Casey again has the story exactly backwards.

Just before the missile strike, Sudan detained two men suspected of bombing the American embassies, notifying Washington, US officials confirmed. But the US rejected Sudan's offer of cooperation, and after the bombing Sudan "angrily released" the suspects (James Risen, NYT, July 30, 1999), since named as bin Laden operatives. Recently leaked FBI memos add another reason why Sudan "angrily released" the bin Laden associates. The memos confirm that the FBI wanted the suspects extradited, but the State Department refused. One "senior CIA source" now describes this and other rejections of Sudanese offers of cooperation as "the worst single intelligence failure in this whole terrible business [of Sept. 11]. It is the key to the whole thing right now," because of the voluminous evidence on bin Laden that Sudan offered to produce, offers that were repeatedly rebuffed because of the administration's "irrational hatred" of the Sudan, the senior CIA source reports. Included in Sudan's rejected offers was "a vast intelligence database on Osama bin Laden and more than 200 leading members of his al-Qaeda terrorist network in the years leading up to the 11 September attacks." Washington was "offered thick files, with photographs and detailed biographies of many of his principal cadres, and vital information about al-Qaeda's financial interests in many parts of the globe," but refused to accept the information, out of "irrational hatred" of the target of its missile attack. "It is reasonable to say that had we had this data we may have had a better chance of preventing the attacks" of Sept. 11, the same senior CIA source concludes (David Rose, Observer, Sept. 30, reporting an Observer investigation).

Returning to Casey's debris, consider his opening claim that "Noam Chomsky rushes to accuse his adversary of `racist contempt' for African victims of terrorism, of a callous refusal to acknowledge their very existence." Anyone with minimal literacy can instantly determine that I unambiguously and explicitly said the precise opposite: that the "adversary" is clearly not a racist, and therefore surely did not mean what his words imply: namely, the "racist contempt" that Casey's words do in fact express. Most of the rest is an irrelevant harangue, which I will ignore, including the repeated inventions (that I referred to "hundreds of thousands of deaths" of Sudanese, etc.).

Something can be learned, however, by a closer look at Casey's techniques for evading the crimes for which he and all of us share responsibility. In response to apparent unfamiliarity with the consequences of the Sudan crime, I quoted a few prominent passages from major journals, in one case the lead front page story -- not as an "argument by authority," as Casey pretends, but to illustrate the kind of information that was readily available to anyone who cared enough to pay attention. In all but one case the writers were respected journalists, whose names I only partially listed: Ed Vulliamy, Henry McDonald, Shyam Bhatia, Martin Bright, Patrick Wintour (London Observer), Mark Huband (Financial Times). Compare Casey's rendition. The other example was the most important, because of the highly credible source: the anniversary article in the Focus section of the Boston Globe by Jonathan Belke, who Casey dismisses as a mere "employee" of the Near East Foundation who is "living and working in Cairo"; how ridiculous. As Casey knows from his internet search, Belke is regional program manager for the Foundation, and writes on the basis of field experience in the Sudan, which is why I quoted his conclusions at length. The Foundation is a respected development institution that dates back to World War I. It provides technical assistance to poor countries in the Middle East and Africa, emphasizing grassroots development projects run by local people, and operates with close connections to major universities, charitable organizations, and the State Department, including such well-known Middle East diplomats as Richard Murphy and John Badeau, JFK's Ambassador to Egypt, who headed the Foundation for many years, among other prominent figures in Middle East educational and developmental affairs. For its regional program manager to live in Egypt, rather than in New York, does not seem entirely unreasonable, contrary to Casey's odd perspective. I did not take the space to mention any of this, but am glad to do so now so as to bring out more clearly the significance of Belke's comments. The same facts help illustrate the nature of Casey's evasion of his responsibility for crimes.

To repeat, the citations were not an "argument by authority" -- though in Belke's case particularly, that happens to be the case -- but a sample of the information readily available to anyone who cares; information, incidentally, which Casey gives no reason to question. For example, he makes much of the fact that 50% is different from 90%, a contradiction -- except that there is no contradiction when a leading specialist (Belke) says that 50% of the products and 90% of the "major products" were destroyed. And as is evident without comment, all of these are rough estimates, for a simple reason: Belke, who worked on the scene, is one of the few who investigated. The situation would have been quite different, needless to say, if criminals and victims had been interchanged instead of conforming to the standard pattern of the history of Europe and its offshoots for hundreds of years.

Dismissing without further comment Casey's fabrications and forays into other topics -- topics that are worth a serious look, but are plainly irrelevant here -- consider a very straightforward analogy: simply ask what the reaction would be if bin Laden's network in a single stroke had destroyed half the "affordable medicine for humans and all the locally available veterinary medicine...and 90 percent of the major pharmaceutical products" of, say, Israel or the United States, as well as the sole factory that might replenish them. And suppose further that the victim was under severe sanctions that "make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to cover the serious gap left by the plant's destruction" so that a year later the bombing "continues to deprive the people of Sudan of needed medicine" (Belke), a "tragedy for the communities who need these medicines" -- namely, the large majority of the population -- according to the lead multi-authored story in the Observer, citing the technical manager with "intimate" knowledge of the plant.

Suppose further that the development specialist cited concludes from his own direct experience in the field that the bombing "brought to light a whole new spectrum of meaning to the phrase `crimes against humanity'."

And suppose we add further the appropriate counterpart to newly released confirmation of what an interested observer might have surmised: The Al-Shifa facility destroyed in the US missile attack was "the only one producing TB drugs - for more than 100,000 patients, at about £1 a month. Costlier imported versions are not an option for most of them - or for their husbands, wives and children, who will have been infected since. Al-Shifa was also the only factory making veterinary drugs in this vast, mostly pastoralist, country. Its speciality was drugs to kill the parasites which pass from herds to herders, one of Sudan's principal causes of infant mortality" (Astill).

The grim toll of our crimes mounts still further -- at least, if we are willing to apply to ourselves the criteria that we brandish with grand moralistic flourishes when professing outrage over the crimes of others.

If this shocking crime had targeted the US or one of its allies, would the reaction be to dismiss it as a matter of no consequence, even without the sole estimate available, by the most knowledgeable commentator, that a year later (correcting for population size) hundreds of thousands -- "many of them children -- have suffered and died" from diseases that would be easily treatable if essential medicines for rampant diseases had not been destroyed, and cannot be replenished because of the destruction of the facilities, the harsh sanctions, and the refusal to provide a pittance of aid? Is that what the reaction would be?

Considering this question, we can ask whether Casey is indeed expressing "racist contempt" for the victims. I won't suggest an answer, for one reason, because the attitudes of a single person are of little moment. What is vastly more important is the nature of these "crimes against humanity," and the reaction to them -- our crimes: "as taxpayers, for failing to provide massive reparations, for granting refuge and immunity to the perpetrators, and for allowing the terrible facts to be sunk so deep in the memory hole that some, at least, seem unaware of them" (quoting from my response to the initial vituperations).

Several points that Casey makes are, however, correct. One is that I did not provide "any specific proof or statistical evidence of these tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths upon which [I] speculate." To rephrase without the consistent lying, the expert source I cited did not provide specific proof or statistical evidence to support his estimate that "tens of thousands of people -- many of them children -- have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases." That is true; he did not. There are no detailed statistics. The actual toll is "unknown," as I stressed from the beginning. And Casey surely understands the reason: there has been no serious investigation, again, unlike what would have happened if the victims were people who matter, a fact that tells us a lot about ourselves. Casey is also correct in saying that the general figures given by the WHO and others do not detect the consequences. The reason, as he surely knows, is that the data are hopelessly imprecise, and even if far more than Belke estimates had died in the first year, the fact would probably not show up in the rough surveys. We may recall that this is not the US or Israel. It is "one of the least developed areas in the world. Its harsh climate, scattered populations, health hazards and crumbling infrastructure combine to make life for many Sudanese a struggle for survival"; a country with endemic malaria, tuberculosis, and many other diseases, where "periodic outbreaks of meningitis or cholera are not uncommon," so that affordable medicines are a dire necessity (Jonathan Belke and Kamal El-Faki, technical reports from the field for the Near East Foundation). It is, furthermore, a country with limited arable land, a chronic shortage of potable water, a huge death rate, wracked with AIDS, an unserviceable debt, a vicious and destructive internal war, little industry, and under severe sanctions. What is happening within is largely speculation, including Belke's (quite plausible) estimate that within a year tens of thousands had suffered and died as the result of the destruction of the major facilities for producing affordable drugs and veterinary medicines, the equivalent of hundreds of thousands in the US.

That seems to exhaust anything that merits comment. Recall again that this entire furious and almost wholly irrelevant reaction was elicited by a one-sentence observation in a composite response to inquiries from journalists, pointing out that the toll of a single incident of US state terror may be comparable to that of the "horrendous crime" of Sept. 11; possibly an understatement. I also pointed out that this is a minor example of our own crimes, unlike "much worse cases, which easily come to mind," some quite uncontroversial in the light of the conclusions of the highest international authorities.

We do not have to look very far. Today's headlines suffice. While we waste time on pathetic efforts to evade past crimes, we might ask how many miserable Afghans have already died since Sept. 11, fleeing in terror of the announced bombings and attacks of the Northern Alliance, which had terrorized much of the country ten years ago when they "torched and devastated [Kabul] far more...than it ever was by Soviet troops" (Robert Marquand and Scott Baldauf, lead story, Christian Science Monitor, citing "experts"). For the past several weeks refugees have been swarming in agony towards borders that had been sealed under repeated US demands, as the NY Times and others have been reporting since Sept. 16, while the few aid workers were withdrawn under the same threats, they report. What is the likely toll already? In the camps across the border, where there are some evacuated aid workers and reporters, the scenes described are frightening enough. But those are the lucky ones, the few who were able to escape -- and who express their hopes that ''even the cruel Americans must feel some pity for our ruined country,'' and relent in this savage silent genocide (Boston Globe, Sept. 27, p. 1). Competent observers fear that within the sealed borders, the outcome in the coming weeks might be catastrophic. There has been nothing to prevent massive air drops of food to the miserable people seeking to escape our threats and the terror of the Taliban and the US-Soviet-Iran-backed Northern Alliance. If it has not been done, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

The Sudan case, far milder in comparison, is important not only because of the likely scale, but also because of the casual indifference to the terrible consequences of our crimes, revealed by the lack of inquiry, and the instructive reactions when the issue is raised -- all matters of very great human significance, now as in the past.

Note that the motives of the Sudan crime, whatever they may have been, are an utter and complete irrelevance in context, merely another evasion of the crucial facts: the crime itself, and the lack of concern for it, in dramatic contrast to anything remotely comparable that might have struck the rich and powerful. All of this merits careful reflection, even without bringing in the longer term consequences discussed by the Financial Times and in retrospect, the current Guardian analysis.

Such reflection provides considerable insight into the values that are operative, not merely professed when convenient. And note that by simple logic, the conclusions hold, with searing accuracy, whatever the results of an ultimate inquiry into the "crime against humanity" in the Sudan might be, if that is even conceivable at this point.

Noam Chomsky


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